Stories, parables, and examples have been a favoured way of conveying spiritual insights and truths since time immemorial, and Trevor Leggett was a master at it. He had the knack of pointing out the spiritual implications of practical events which people can relate to.
The Old Zen Master contains stories based on Buddhism with references to martial arts, music, chess and incidents in ordinary life. He describes this as a freewheeling book: `I am trying to give a few hints which have helped me and which can be of help to others,’ he said.
For those who know nothing of Buddhism or Zen in particular, this is an ideal introduction. It is nevertheless relevant to long-term practitioners as well. As the author points out, occasionally a new slant, a new angle or a new illustration — especially if it is an unexpected one — can be a help in absorbing practice, study and devotion.
This book is a transcript of talks given at the Summer Schools of the Buddhist Society in the years 1982 to 1985.1 have in general kept the original colloquial presentation with its occasionally loose sentence construction. There were however a few cases where bare print could not convey the sense of a gesture or intonation, and extra words were therefore supplied.
There was a Master called Iida, some of whose books are difficult to read. They are old books from the beginning of the last century, and I went over parts of one of them with a good Zen teacher who is also an excellent scholar, and he told me: In places, I don’t know what the old boy meant. He just throws difficult Chinese texts at you.’ In one section, however, Iida lists in an illuminating way some of what a former Master (Master Gudo) called ‘Zen illness’.
The first Zen illness is ‘lack of faith’ — that your faith doesn’t go far enough. Iida said, ‘It isn’t so much faith in what will be, as faith in what is’ We have to have faith in what now.
We all know what people say they think; it comes out in their words. But often those same words also give away the true state of affairs.
Those who have done much Judo might sometimes be asked to control people who are drunk. And anybody who has ever had to do that is very familiar with the phrase: ‘I’m not so think as you drunk I am!’ We know what he means, but the very way in which he says it tells us the opposite.
Iida also spoke of ‘the heart of faith’1. What is the heart of faith? He said, ‘The one who asks is the heart.’ And what is faith? ‘The fact that one asks is faith.’ Now, if you can isolate those two in yourself — what it is that is asking, and what is this asking — then you will come to the heart of faith. It isn’t a matter of words.
Perfection is often represented by a great circle. A man tried this with Master Takuan. He made a big circle in the air with his finger and said, ‘The Buddha, Buddha-nature — it’s a great circle — means perfection.’ He was in an exalted state as he said it.
The teacher said, ‘What?’
‘Buddha-nature — perfection — perfect circle!’
‘THE BUDDHA-NATURE IS PERFECTION! — CIRCLE!’
Well, there is an angle here somewhere!
Iida, this Zen Master from whom I have taken some illustrations, sometimes turns phrases on their heads, but it makes us think about them, and this can be a stimulus. There is a saying that the karma must ripen and the season must come, and the person who has been loyally practising — then he gets it! But Iida said, ‘The karma and the season came long ago; they are waiting for you! It is the persons who are lacking.’
Another Zen illness is ‘faith in the universe’. The example given is growing roses. Iida said, ‘The gardener can’t actually get inside the rose and go uhh! uhh! uhh! uhh! He has to have faith in the rose; and he removes the obstacles. If there is lack of water, he supplies it. When you say that the gardener grows roses, this is only a secondary use of the term. The roses grow; the gardener removes the obstructions.’
Another example from gardening: One is told, ‘Don’t look for results! Think of tiny children. When you were a little child, you planted seeds and the next day, “Oh, nothing’s come up!” Then the next day you thought, “I’ll dig them up and see what’s going on.” That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?’ But an experienced gardener says, ‘Yes, of course, it is ridiculous to dig them up after two days. On the other hand, if you put the seeds down six years ago and you left them alone, and you walked over them — maybe put rubbish on top of them — and still nothing has happened, it might be time to do a bit of digging up and planting fresh seeds!’
The next Zen illness is ‘acquiring things’. And this example (not from Iida) is something I heard some years ago from a Zen preacher. One of the most popular film stars in Japan is, or was then, Alain Delon. The preacher was instancing a Japanese husband and wife. He said, ‘The husband is working hard, getting on; and the wife is doing well (she is bringing up the child). But one day instead of which I may say I know nothing and I have the feeling that it is given sometimes by people who also don’t know much about gardening.
Doing the household chores she spends the afternoon looking at a television film of Alain Delon. And she is very taken with this. Then, shortly before her husband returns, she puts on the apron so that he will think “What a hardworking wife I’ve got!” and busily gets everything ready. Then he comes in, and she looks at him and thinks, “Why aren’t you more like Alain Delon?” But as a matter of fact, in the train on the way home, he has been reading a magazine about Alain Delon, and when he comes in he looks at her and thinks, “Why aren’t you more like the glamorous women that Alain Delon comes back to?” And the preacher said, ‘Now, they have both got something in their minds. They have acquired something. And that spoils their lives — momentarily.’ Then he made the further point that what they acquired was something that didn’t exist. What they saw on film and so forth was a creation of make-up and lights and camera angles, and the actual film stars — when you meet them — are nothing like they are on the screen. So the husband and wife had put something into their minds which was illusory; and they had it at the back of their minds when they were talking to each other. Now, this is the great illness of acquiring something, of putting something into your mind which doesn’t exist.
The next Zen illness is ‘no persistence’. Iida explains how people start with a tremendous burst of enthusiasm — nirvana now and beat the rush! — but don’t keep it up. Then he mentions quite an interesting point about tricks (and I recognize this from judo). You can teach people in their first year certain things which will get quick results — surprising tricks which will get very quick results in the contests in the first year.
I knew two brothers (they were not from any dojd where I had ever taught) whose teacher showed them three or four tricks. They must have spent a lot of time on them because when they came up to the central clubs for the grading contests, they sometimes won in two or three seconds. It was most dramatic — marvellous, like a miracle, a magical trick — man goes over, bang! And very pleasant for the examiners too.
But these things have an inherent limit. The effect is mainly from surprise. After a year they have the brown belt (the one below the famous black belt), but other Brown Belts have been around — they have seen most of what there is to be seen — and these tricks will not get any results at all against them. Someone who has spent his time acquiring them, therefore, does not have throws which can develop; he only has tricks which now no longer work — because they depended on surprise. So those two brothers — although they shot ahead in their first year — were stuck for three years and could not advance any further. Whilst the people they had beaten so brilliantly in the early stages, went ahead of them.
This, in the spiritual traditions, is called ‘sneaking in by the side door’. There are, so to speak, tricks by which people can have immediate results which seem to be very impressive — especially to themselves. But these things have inherent limitations and cannot lead to anything. People who sneak in through the side door without an invitation — not coming in through the front door— soon get discovered. And, as the teacher says, they get thrown out.
The successes — these dramatic successes which can be attained by tricks — are generally disastrous. Without saying anything about Buddhism, in judo you never improve from success. You nearly always get worse because your head gets bigger and bigger and you think, ‘Oh, no need to study any more.’ When you have a failure, on the other hand, you analyse and make progress. So, ‘The early successes in Zen,’ says Iida, ‘are not very favourable, because what seem to be early successes — what the man himself thinks are early successes — affect his persistence.’
Then the next Zen illnessis said to be a very serious one indeed. This is ‘to hang on to one’s own ideas’, to hang on with a clenched fist to one’s own ideas. One can use a good deal of resourcefulness, if one is ingenious enough, to protect and develop one’s ideas; the intellect can be used. You say to the intellect, ‘Look, this training is getting boring. Get me out of it!’ And intellect says, ‘Well of course I speak as an outsider, I can only bring in pure reason, but it seems to me — correct me if I’m wrong — that Buddhism is supposed to remove the ego, is it not?’
‘Well now, if you say, “ going to practise; going to keep up this discipline,” well, that’s an assertion of the ego, isn’t it? You are strengthening the very thing you are supposed to be weakening.’
Intellect, as a sort of devil in a frock coat, speaks from the point of view of reason. It sounds all right. But then, with luck, one of the little imps aping his master, shouts enthusiastically, ‘Yes, that’s right. And don’t make your breakfast, either, because you’ll be thinking, “I am making breakfast,” and that will impair your spiritual practice too.’ The hollowness of the whole argument is now exposed. So, if we are going to do anything, we should do the spiritual practice.
Iida gives this example: A man with a bitter tongue went to his teacher and said, ‘Nirvana is here now. Why do spiritual practice?’
And the teacher said, ‘Yes, nirvana is here now. Why go round slandering people?’ The man had that bitter tongue. If spiritual practice is not to be done because it isn’t necessary, then by the same reasoning, our ordinary activities should not be done, either. If I am not to do spiritual practice because it will increase my egotism, then I shouldn’t make the breakfast, because that will also increase my egotism.
We have to be trained, and we don’t know the training we need because the training we need will be directed at our weak points. The training I would like would be the training of my strong points where I can show off like mad. Suppose I am very strong on the right side. I can get results on the right; I can throw people on the right. Then suddenly the teacher says, ‘You’ve got to give up the right for six months and only use the left.’ Well, then I look a fool! I can’t throw people with the left. It’s ridiculous! I can do things this way, but I can’t do things that way. ‘Why does he insist I should do it that way?’ They all say, ‘Old Leggett’s going off, you know … can’t throw anyone.’ Well, it takes considerable effort to get over that and to think, ‘All right! I’m going to look a fool for six months.’ If you do that, then both the sides start to balance. And, as a matter of fact, when the left is developed, the right too becomes stronger. If the right side is developed by itself and the left is undeveloped, then even the apparent strength of the right is defective. So we are trained in what we need. As a Japanese Zen teacher once told me: ‘Don’t think that Zen came to Japan because it suits the Japanese people. No, Zen came to Japan because it is what the Japanese people need.’
Among the judo fraternity, the roughest are the medical students. I practised once with such a man. I didn’t know where he came from, but normally in the practice hall (ddjo) people just come up and say, ‘Will you?’ (o-negai). But this chap, came up, made a very deep formal bow and said, ‘May I have the honour of practising with you?’ (o-negai-itashimasu).
‘Oh, all right.’
Well, he was like a typhoon — all elbows and knees and hacks. When he first threw me, as I was getting off the floor, he drew himself up and said, ‘Please excuse me.’
I thought, ‘Whew! what’s this?’
Then, when I threw him, same thing: he got up off the floor, stood straight, bowed and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ And then it was all elbows, knees and hacks again.
I realized later that the teacher in the medical judo dojo knew that was what his students needed. He knew they were liable to lose their tempers, so he made them have this very strict politeness as a way of calming them down, as a way of restraining them a little bit, just for a moment in the middle of the excitement. One judo man I knew was the opposite. He was a marvellously skilful man, but too kind-hearted. He would sort of think, ‘If I beat this chap, he’ll be all depressed and sorry.’ You would say to him, ‘Look, he’s come here to try; he’s come here to fail; he wants you to go all out.’ But whatever you said it didn’t make any difference; he was too nice, too kind.
Well, just before one big contest, the teacher called him out of the hall and round into a corner. He said, ‘I’ve just got something to tell you before the contest,’ then he spat in his face. It’s a nasty experience. The teacher then wiped it off for him and said, ‘Now go on, get back.’ To everyone’s amazement this man who usually went up very politely and considerately to the platform, strode forward with his face like iron — and he won in no time! Well, that was not exactly his weak point, but he was too nice, and it was against the spirit of contest which is to fight very hard and then afterwards be very good friends. The whole basis is peace, but on that peace — for the sake of sport — there is this intense competition and rivalry. Personal ideas have to be given up; we have to accept that the training will be to our weak points.
Now, Iida said, ‘The students must understand that their meditation and spiritual practice must spread out from the meditation period into their ordinary activities.’ To merely follow instructions is not enough.
We never, or hardly ever, do these things now, but I had a certain experience of it when a teacher offered to show me something special. I stood there and he said, ‘Now, cross the wrist over here,’ so I crossed the wrist over there. But as I was doing it, he slapped me on the face!
‘You can’t just do that. You’re a judo man. You’re supposed to be awake. You are not supposed to be just crossing a wrist and not paying attention to what I might do. I’m here!’ Then he told me to cross the wrists again. This time I was alert, not just mechanically thinking, ‘Oh well, I’ll just do this; this is what is wanted so I’ll do it.’ No — total awareness.
In the same way, in spiritual practice the whole life must be alert to it. It isn’t just a question of doing one thing at one time and place.
The next Zen illness is ‘failure to mature’. People practise and get what Iida calls ‘a little bit of fire in them’, but it doesn’t mature. They are satisfied with what they get and think, ‘I have something.’ Then they go off and it doesn’t mature. One of the problems, as we know, is that we are told it takes a long, long time: twenty years under the hammer, thirty years under the hammer — and you wait for the auctioneer to say ‘forty years under the hammer’ — before you get anything.
One example is this. A retired schoolmaster I knew was marvellous at chess problems. He sometimes won the national competitions they held at the time. What he used to do was set up the position on a board in his house, and then when he was walking past, he would look at it for a few minutes, try one or two moves, write down the result, and then pass on. He was getting on in years so he couldn’t concentrate on it for hours on end, but I asked him once, ‘How long does it take?’ He said, ‘I reckon it takes about two days. Then I have the solution. We are given a week.’ Now, if each time he looked at it he had thought, ‘Oh well, it’s going to take two days,’ he would never have solved it. So each time he looked at it, he had to think, ‘Now! Now! Try this one now!’ And his experience was that generally it would be wrong — but it might be right. And Iida said, ‘Because you are told that it will take some time maturing, don’t think, “Oh well, here we go trudging along.” No, think, “Now! Now! Now!”’
One of the applications is this. In this country we tend to think we cannot really get results unless we are directly driven by some passion. People say, ‘You won’t win unless you have the killer instinct; nice people don’t win!’ Well, it is quite true that people who have the killer instinct often do win, but if, in a competitive antagonistic situation, you have ever seen someone who has lost his temper up against a good technician who manages to keep his head, then you have seen an absolute massacre because ‘desire has no eyes’ (this is a Zen saying which Iida quotes) and ‘temper can’t wait’.
In one of Shaw’s plays, How He Lied to Her Husband, a poet is in love with the wife of a big man who has a furious temper. They hear the husband coming back; they hear him clumping about downstairs. She says, ‘He’ll kill you!’
The poet says, ‘Oh no, no. I’m a poet, you know, and like all poets I go in for boxing. It’s true I’m a lightweight, I’m a lightweight, but I’m agile enough to keep out of your husband’s way until his temper gets him all puffed. And after that I shall be all over him.’
‘What do you mean by “all over him?”’
‘Best not ask, dear.’
The killer instinct, the temper, the fury — it does get results — but there is something higher. One of the analogies given is the yacht. Many people think that the yacht goes fastest when the wind is directly behind blowing it forward, but the yacht can go faster if it is across the wind. The mechanical principle involved is different — the inclined plane — and the yacht can go faster than the wind. Most people find this incredible, but it can be looked up and verified. There has to be a keel to hold the boat steady, of course, but then this is what happens.
This example is given in Zen. The passions are not directly opposed, but are crossed and made use of in a spiritual way. The heart-yacht doesn’t run directly before the passions; it runs across them.
In the application of spiritual principles, as in judo techniques, they must work. Iida makes quite a point of this. He says, ‘Things may be very beautiful, things may be very appealing, things may be very touching, very kindly, but unless they work, they are not Zen.’
And perhaps we see this today. There is great kindliness with the Welfare State, but it is what Confucius called ‘sentimentality’ — benevolence without wisdom. Something has gone wrong. Iida stresses, ‘It must work.’ And in judo I can remember a beautiful stylist. He said to me once, ‘You know, as I pick myself off the floor, they say, “Oh, but you’ve got such a lovely style.”’ you have left something out.’ Again, we give every tiny detail. ‘No, you’ve left something out.’ Now, what is it that we have left out? Light! Most of us don’t describe light; we don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re seeing light.’ And yet everything we see is light. An artist does; an artist will describe light.
In the same way, there is stillness and movement; and there is a joy in these two things. But we don’t think of that; we don’t feel a joy in movement. All we think is, ‘I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that.’ Babies feel it. So Iida tells us, ‘There is something in our ordinary experience which we miss and which we must recover.’
Well, the last thing Iida says is, ‘If you talk too much, the universe begins to yawn.’ So I’ll shut up now!
Now, Iida further says that we have to find enlightenment in each instant. We all know the experience of going to a beautiful place in the country and thinking, ‘Oh, this’ll be heaven.’ But after three or four days, ‘Oh, no, no . . .’ It gets humpy, you know, nothing doing.
A modern Zen teacher shouted at his audience, ‘Hakuin’s “Song of Meditation” says “The place where you are, that is the Lotus Paradise.” You are in air-polluted Tokyo, so don’t complain. Tokyo is your Lotus Paradise.’
We have to find these things in ourselves, in the ordinary movements. If we look at children, we see they have a joy in movement. The baby on the lawn this afternoon saw a coloured ball going along. He kicked it and laughed — the yellow moving on the green — and he got pleasure out of running. Well, we just watch dully and think, ‘Oh just a ball…’ What’s gone wrong? What have we lost? We had these things once. Iida tells us there is something we are missing.
Suppose we are asked to describe everything in this room, and we do. Then they say, ‘No, you’ve left something out.’ So we give more detail. ‘No,